Solving The Drake Equation
Remember if you heard this here first.
Back in the 60’s a scientist named Frank Drake pointed out that statistical probability implies the existence of millions of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy. Nobody criticized his math. The skeptical response was “oh yeah? Then where is everybody?” Perhaps we can’t see evidence of aliens because intelligent civilizations inherently tend to destroy themselves? I have an alternate explanation: The universe is brimming with signals from intelligent organisms. We keeping missing the signals because we lack the imagination to detect them. I predict that one-day soon, some human or one of our AIs will stumble across such a signal prompting us to go back through our data and realize that one of the things the ozone layer does is keep the profusion of well intended alien attempts at contact from giving us cancer.
Intelligent aliens wouldn’t have to be all that weird to make their attempts at contact undetectable by organisms like us. The human brain evolved to encode information into a special format known as “language” and project it toward brains which incorporate the signal into their internal state. The translation and decoding process naturally includes some distortion, but the ease of transmission makes the loss of information worth it. Our natural communication abilities include the ability to compensate for errors in transmission. Good communicators and sympathetic listeners can perform this trick so well that even complex instructions and subtle emotions are transmissible. It’s a cool system, but hardly the only conceivable method of communication.
Imagine a method of communication based on simply transmitting an entire copy of a relevant mental state into a specialized organ in a friend’s mind, allowing them to digest the entire experience of “being you contemplating that thought”, then returning you “the experience of being them reflecting on being you having your thought.” If your brain had evolved to communicate in the above format, it might take you a very long time to conceive of sending information using the electromagnetic spectrum no matter how smart or well intentioned you were. For such a mind, the idea of sending out a 1930’s style radio drama might be less intuitive than the Heisenberg uncertainly principle.
Another possibility is communication based on directly inducing mental states. Some of our alien friends may have evolved to communicate by directly stimulating each others brains to produce thoughts. This “though induction” would not require creating a language style code which reduces the complexity of the information being transmitted and relies on the interlocutor’s brain to fill in the missing information. Though induction is impractical with mammalian biology, but our alien friends have no DNA and some may literally “eat lightning and crap thunder”. It’s unfair to assume their evolution converged with humanity’s universal grammar. A species with this style of communication would probably also eschew radio waves as means of communication. Communicating the entire contents of a thought, rather than the vibrations produced by a homo-sapiens style “thought inducing sound” might raise the minimum complexity of an intelligible broadcast.
At the moment, we’re limited to contacting species who think that using electromagnetic waves to dash out prime numbers is a cute idea. This could be a tiny fraction of intelligent life, and space is really big. Someday, we’ll find other forms of contact signals just as obvious, but in a form our biology didn’t predispose us to observing. Future generations may view The Drake’s equation and perhaps even this essay, as equivalent to the early predictions of the existence of Neptune based irregularities in Uranus’s orbit.
These words aren’t intended to excite you about meeting knew alien friends. Getting to know these strange new minds after we discover them will be as difficult, mathematically rigorous, and (for most of us) boring a task as sitting alone at a telescope in the middle of the Texas dessert and waiting for code to compile. My goal is to rebuke those who accepted the laughably unimaginative “civilization suicide” hypothesis. Assuming that the vast ocean of space is Dead is the wrong choice. It’s the scientific equivalent of committing suicide to avoid having to do laundry.
Next time somebody gives you a pessimistic view of the universe, ask them if they’ve rigorously applied their imagination. Don’t allow yourself to be trapped in a prison of verbal thought. Explore forms of communication that induce mental states rather than transmit verbal information. Mediums like music, painting, and wrestling (BJJ) are great examples. Travel if you can and strike up conversations with people from different backgrounds. Avoid mental stagnation by imagining what it would be like to be someone else, and remember the vast difference between your own experience and the subjective experience of an octopus. Take out your phone right now and start a memorandum titled “Useful Ideas that I would never think of”, keep adding to it until you change the world.
Also, remember if you heard this here first. If the aliens contact you, feel free to come back and thank me in the comments section.